Journalism in the Public Interest

EPA Plans to Issue Rules Covering Fracking Wastewater

The federal government had left it to states to decide how to regulate wastewater that was discharged from wells to streams, but now says it will develop national standards.


The McKeesport Sewage Treatment Plant, one of nine plants on the Monongahela River that has treated wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations. (Joaquin Sapien/ProPublica)

The EPA took another step toward tightening oversight of hydraulic fracturing today, announcing it would initiate a process to set national rules for treating wastewater discharged from gas drilling operations.

Until now, the agency has largely left it to states to police wastewater discharges. Some have allowed drillers to pump waste through sewage treatment plants that aren't equipped to remove many of the contaminants, leading to pollution in some rivers and to problems at drinking water facilities.

Cynthia Dougherty, EPA's director of ground water and drinking water, told a Senate panel today that the agency has an important role to play in bolstering state standards.

"I wouldn't say they're inadequate," she said of states' regulations, "but they could use the help."

When drillers frack a gas well, they inject thousands of gallons of chemicals, some of which are highly toxic even at low concentrations. When the fluid comes back up, it carries extremely salty water that can contain heavy metals and radioactive elements.

In Western states, most drilling wastewater is injected deep underground for permanent storage. There are fewer injection wells in the East, however, so much of the waste from drilling in the Marcellus Shale was initially discharged into surface waters.

The EPA has the authority to issue permits for such discharges, but current rules allow shale gas drillers to pass their waste through public sewage plants even if those plants are not equipped to remove pollutants. (There are currently no rules covering wastewater from coalbed methane drilling, a type of gas production that drills into coal seams, so those wastes can be discharged without treatment.)

For years, Pennsylvania allowed growing volumes of wastewater to flow into the state's rivers. As ProPublica reported two years ago, the water's high salt and mineral content was believed to have elevated pollutant levels in some streams. It also may have clogged industrial equipment, killed fish and caused contamination in drinking water.

In March, the EPA sent a letter to environmental officials in Pennsylvania expressing alarm at high pollutant levels in the wastewater that was being discharged into the state's waterways. The agency urged the state to increase monitoring. The next month, the state asked drillers to stop discharging waste unless it was properly treated. By June, state officials said that no waste was being discharged without full treatment.

In an email to ProPublica, the EPA said that concerns about releases in Pennsylvania and "other information" led the agency to initiate the process to set new national rules. The agency said about 22 billion gallons of wastewater from coalbed methane drilling go into surface waters across the country each year. The EPA does not have data on how much shale gas wastewater is being discharged nationwide.

"This is just a really good opportunity to be able to track the amount and the content of the waste at these wells," said Jason Pitt, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. "You really can't treat these chemicals as they come up without really knowing what's in them."

The Independent Petroleum Association of America issued a statement today saying it would work with the EPA to develop new standards and noted that drillers are increasingly cleaning and reusing their wastewater. Officials in Pennsylvania and at the EPA have said that increased recycling has been an important factor in reducing wastewater discharges.

The EPA said it would propose wastewater rules for coalbed methane drilling in 2013. Similar rules covering shale gas will come a year later, after the agency gathers more data on discharges.

The plan is one of several recent moves to increase federal oversight of fracking. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed rules that would limit air emissions from fracking operations. The Interior Department, which regulates drilling on federal lands, has said it will issue rules covering fracking within the month.

Now I am confused. I always thought that “coal bed” methane was English for the American term “shale gas”

Edmund Singleton

Oct. 22, 2011, 3:20 a.m.

I find it hard to decide, cheap energy or clean water, let me see?

Barbara Pritts

Oct. 22, 2011, 11:34 a.m.

My vote is for the clean water.

Daniel Robert Snodgrass

Oct. 22, 2011, 3:12 p.m.

Read from the pages of Chesapeake Energy’s Green Frac® program, founded in October 2009.

“Most of the chemical additives in frack fluids can be found in everyday household products such as laundry detergents, cleaners and beauty products. Some are even present in food and beverage items and in swimming pools.

After evaluations are completed, Green Frac calls for the elimination of any additive not critical to the successful completion of the well and determines if greener alternatives are available for all essential additives.

Water and Sand: ~ 98%    Other: ~ 2%”

Read from the pages of

Nice report, @nkus

Barbara Pritts

Oct. 22, 2011, 4:27 p.m.

I don’t have much faith in a report written by a “frac company” even if it is a “green frac” program.  Too many cases of water being ruined, such as in Dimrock, Pa.
They cannot assure us that our ground water from our wells will not be contaminated by methane gas.  They can tell us anything just to get us to sign a lease to enable them to drill for gas in the Marcellus Shale.
I say,  wait until they come up with a safer way to extract the gas, the Marcellus Shale deposit will still be there.  It is not going anywhere.

Milliardo Peacecraft

Oct. 22, 2011, 7:16 p.m.

Its true that the mixture is about 98% water and sand and 2% other chemicals, but when your talking about tanks that hold 650 million Gallons of the mixture or more that is still more than enough toxic chemical to contaminate a water suply

And now we have a new report coming out that connects earthquakes to FRACKING. This is becoming a more damaging process everyday. Fresh water is absolutely to the future of the planet. Our govt really has to begin weighing the pros and cons of developing energy resources .

Edmund Singleton

Oct. 23, 2011, 3:36 a.m.

An speck of a chemical may do some good, however, a pound will kill you…

To those of you who seem to believe what the federal government and it’s agencies tell you, let me sell you a bridge.  Obama and his agencies, particulary the EPA, will stop at nothing to gain more power. His continued barrage of demonizing business will only lead to giving him more control of things that he knows nothing about.  Look at the billions of our tax dollars that he has given to environmental companies like Solyndra (now declaring bankruptcy). The man has never worked in business let alone made decisions about running one.  He believes that making a profit is evil if it is more than what he deems it to be. He is instigating problems for us when he pits one group of citizens against another. That is not what a competent leader does.  That is what a Hugo Chavez does in order to gain and keep control.

Why is he throwing money at Brazil to drill for oil offshore, but puts roadblocks up for American companies to do the same?

I thought he was elected president, not dictator.  Wise up before it is too late.

Barbara Pritts

Oct. 23, 2011, 1:24 p.m.

Ummm, sure sounds like Glenn Beck.

I am so glad we have an EPA.  I hope they will provide some guidance in our area before the drilling starts.  After all, the health of the citizens is more important than the almighty dollar $$.

Edmund Singleton

Oct. 24, 2011, 4:19 a.m.

If the EPA was never started a tenth of the planet would not be fit to live on adding another five percent in twenty years or so…

It is a sad state of affairs when science and environmental protection are set equal to industry hype.  The EPA is one of the most useful and effective of government agencies.
Unfortunately the public has been trained to consider making money as ultimate human endeavor.  Any public good that might curtaIl profit is ferociously attacked.
Am no spring chicken and see the slow, steady erosion of ethical standards and honesty since the Reagan years.

It’s interesting to see how the Republicans are trying their hardest to get rid of the EPA….how much money would that save the Koch Brothers, etc.?  Interesting, huh?  The same goes for the Teacher’s Unions, etc.  Seems all the departments they want to get rid of would help their rich donors make MORE money and cause MORE problems for the general public.

I was excited from reafing the headline; then let down to see they’ll merely regulate what comes OUT of the wells, not what they’re pumping in!
And, since in the Western States the waste is being pumped ...“deep underground…”, this does nothing to protect deep water supplies in these Western States.
If we humans continue to treat terrestrial water as a sewer, we will kill ourselves off in short order. As the Hopi Prophecy says, “...know where your water comes from…”, in these times of earth changes.

Coal and gas concerns

Oct. 27, 2011, 8:30 a.m.

Link to video of Manchin encouraging staff not to have violations written up. See youtube video - titled on first screen “WV Gov. Joe Manchin addressed the COAL ASSOCIATION at the 2008 Coal Symposium after 12 died at SAGO and BEFORE 29 MORE DIED ATUPPER BIG BRANCH ! “. . “retail government wholesale death. wmv”. Accompanying notes say “WV Governor Joe Manslaughter brags about telling mine inspectors to lay off issuing citations for mine violations to his campaign backers. ”  See .  Note Manchin has been reported to have been a coal broker, with his son still running this family business.

to all you haters, 
black people work hard too send the children to school in hopes of rising kids to a better place then they have had and you would like to keep them as slaves well we had a war over this in 1860s to settle that issue. you lost they are free to be people now. it took little over 158 years to have one as are leader and u can’t take it, so pack your bags and get the f====k out of our country go to ussr. they will have you and your money. So now what are u waiting for go hurry up our country will be better with out u….

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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